A series of roadblocks face a black detective investigating a murder in Paulo Nascimento’s thriller, Breathless (Sem Fôlego). No, this isn’t the United States. Unsurprisingly, racism knows no borders as our story takes us to Brazil. In the small seaside town of Santa Brígida, along the shore, a young teen is found murdered. After suffocating him, the killer applied red lipstick to the boy’s lips and replaced his shoes with red high heels. Investigating the case is troubled detective Joe (Pedro Caetano), who is under tremendous pressure to solve it quickly.
The murdered boy is the son of an affluent family who uses their influence to demand Joe be taken off the case. Partly because they feel he’s incompetent… but really, it’s because he’s black. Piling on to his problems, Joe’s wife is fed up with the racist town and leaves with their child. Having no confidence in Joe’s ability to solve the crime, the regional government assigns ace detective Alex (Bruno Gissoni) to lead the investigation.
Taking the high road, Joe resigns himself to Alex’s assistant as he is a brilliant detective with a high success rate. However, as the two begin to make headway into solving the murder, they are met with passive-aggressive resistance from the locals. This is not only because of Joe’s race, but Alex once lived in the community and left town under dubious circumstances. Before you know it, a young girl is found donning the killer’s signature of red lipstick and high heels. As the investigation continues, some of the town’s secrets are about to be exposed, like a broken pressure cooker. Now, Joe and Alex now must work feverishly to prevent a third murder.
“…Joe and Alex now must work feverishly to prevent a third murder.”
I’ve had the pleasure of viewing several international thrillers while writing for Film Threat. It can be a mixed bag of emotions as U.S. thrillers are highly produced, slick, and full of A-list celebrities to draw us in. But, right away, I notice the low budgets and lack of known actors (to me) and remind myself that this will not feel familiar. Breathless is a thriller worth giving a chance. It opens as a typical crime story. Like pulp fiction novels of ole, Joe is a broken detective, who believes in justice, even when those he’s charged to protect want nothing to do with him. Alex comes in as the potential savior but has issues of his own that get in the way.
Before this cop procedural becomes bland, it’s broken up by a more significant social issue hanging over head like a dark cloud. The problem is bullying, and when uncovered, this theme runs throughout, infecting almost every aspect of the investigation. It explores the most overt examples of bullying and the inclusion of subtle micro-aggressions — not everything is race-based.
It’s also worth discussing subtitles and dubbing. My version of Breathless is dubbed in English. But, I’ll be honest, I was fooled. The fact that the story takes place in Brazil should have been a tip-off, but I kept thinking, “Wow! Why did they choose to do it all in English?” I mention this because as astonished as I was by the dub, I kept thinking that the dialogue was not well written. I’ve been watching a lot of anime recently and found that the subtitles do so much more to capture the true spirit of a story. I wish I had seen a subtitled version of the film. It’s not bad, but I know I missed more than my fair share of nuances. It’s not just the words, but the vocal performances feel lackluster as well.
Once I was able to get past the dubbing issues, I ultimately found Breathless to be a fun thriller, though I was definitely left wanting more. So check it out, but try to find a subtitled version if you can.
"…a thriller worth giving a chance."